With one hand on each concrete post, Mackenzie Brannan lifts herself upside down into a handstand. She makes it look effortless, a glimpse of her future as a University of Alabama gymnast. Her legs are straight, toes pointed.
Her older half brother, Brian Roberts, looks on.
“Well,” he said, “I think I can do that.”
There’s a nine-year difference between Mackenzie and Brian, but on this day they’re playing together like little kids. That’s how it has always been with these two.
Brian successfully gets up on another pair of pillars right next to his still-balancing sister. While Brannan remains tall and strong, Brian’s legs bend and flail as he tries to stay upright.
The view, for anyone else wandering around that San Antonio plaza near the Alamo, is comical.
“My form is pretty good,” Brannan said. “His is little iffy, probably like a 9.2.”
The duo’s mother, Debi Brannan, snapped a photo, capturing a memory that is still cherished today, seven years later. Those were the easy, carefree days. It was before Mackenzie left for college, and well before Brian received news that would forever change the Brannan family’s life.
On Nov. 17 last year, Brian was diagnosed with stage four hepatosplenic T-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (HSTCL), a very rare and aggressive type of cancer.
“It stops you in your tracks,” Debi said, “and makes you realize how important just sitting on the back porch, sharing a glass of tea with your kid is.”
The first cancer scare came when Brian was 18 months old. His day-care provider noticed he wasn’t doing well and notified his mother. Debi took him to the pediatrician, where she was ultimately told her baby boy might have leukemia. He was immediately taken to the hospital. Tests were done, including a bone marrow aspiration and biopsy.
Results came back negative.
But days after his 30th birthday, Brian was not as fortunate.
“To have your son lay in a bed pretty much unconscious — not able to wake up enough to talk — you look at him and it’s hard to not see them as your baby, as the one-and-a-half-year-old kid that I had at the children’s hospital 29 years before,” Debi said. “It was really not any different. It’s not any different as a mom.”
Only there was no sweet relief this time.
Debi got the call in a parking lot, waiting to pick up Brian’s dinner with his 2-year-old son. Brian had been in and out of the hospital already, sick with a fever, cough and night sweats. He felt miserable, but cancer was the last explanation Debi expected.
“It’s one of those things where time really stands still,” Debi said. “I remember every step I took for the rest of the day.”
She took her grandson home with the food. Brian was sitting on the couch, overwhelmed with shock and fear.
Mother and son packed a bag and went back to hospital for a few days. Brian underwent his first round of chemotherapy. Debi was by his side the whole time.
“I was just thinking wow, we’ve done this before,” Debi said. “Maybe it’s going to be OK.”
Of the family’s four kids, Brian is closest to Mackenzie in age. He’s who she grew up around, played with and tattled on when fighting.
So when Mackenzie, now a senior at UA, found out about her brother’s cancer diagnosis more than 700 miles away, it was hard not to go back home to Austin, Texas. The separation didn’t last long. She returned for Thanksgiving about a week later.
“I was just happy for him to be right in front of me, for me to get to hug him,” Mackenzie said. “To just spend time with him, I was excited. It was an emotional time, just to be back with my family.”
Debi didn’t want to waste any of this time together under one roof. She didn’t cook: They ate takeout, sat around and enjoyed each other’s company.
It was simple. Perfect, really, especially with Mackenzie back on break.
“That’s special whether your family is going through something or not,” Debi said. “There’s nothing — nothing — like the bond of a sibling, just to see them sit on the couch together or chat, share a memory and laugh about something.”
They did the same for Christmas.
Brian’s stocking was stuffed with a personalized note from Mackenzie. In it, she shared her favorite memories: playing Super Mario Bros. on an old Nintendo, learning how to play soccer, being schooled in basketball and watching him attempt gymnastics. The more he read, the more they both cried.
“When they were hugging and saying goodbye, they probably were really wondering what the future looks like,” Debi said. “It was emotional. It was hard to hug him and tell him goodbye.”
Brian learned how to make stained glass about five years ago. The hobby has come in handy now that he’s on break from work and allowed only to do so much.
His first piece back was a green ribbon, which is the HSTCL awareness color. The plan was to shatter it immediately.
“I loved the symbolism of that,” the mother said.
It was meant to prove he can beat this. He can beat cancer.
Lying in his hospital bed the day he was diagnosed, Brian turned to his mom and planted the first seed of hope.
“I’m going to fight like hell,” he said. “This is not going to get me.”
That turned into the tagline of his road through treatment and to recovery. Fight like hell. It’s even a hashtag, one he started on Facebook that family and friends have embraced.
Every time it’s used, that hope grows. It remains at a patient speed. This isn’t something to push.
“There are days you don’t see a real strong ‘I’m going to fight like hell,’ ” Debi said. “Some days, I’m going to fight like hell just means laying down, taking care of yourself and doing whatever’s next on the list to get there.”
That strength — that fight — is an inspiration to his sister.
Mackenzie wears a grey rubber wristband that has “Fight like Hell” inscribed in green on one side, her brother’s initials on the other.
“It’s on my wrist every day,” Mackenzie said. “I keep it on my wrist when I compete, I put it under my leotard, and I look at it right before I go compete. I’ve taken on his mantra this season.”
Soon after Mackenzie learned about Brian’s cancer, she walked into Alabama gymnastics coach Dana Duckworth’s office emotional but determined. The senior gymnast asked if she could wear a green ribbon in her hair during meets this season in honor of her brother. Maybe even the whole team could.
Six meets in and that request has been met by every member of the Crimson Tide.
“That’s not just support for Brian,” Debi said. “These girls don’t know Brian. They know and love Mack and they’re doing this for her just as much as they’re doing it for him.”
And that’s obvious.
“Whatever it takes,” Duckworth said, “we’re going to be there through thick and thin for Mack, for Brian and for the Brannan family.”
Said teammate Ari Guerra: “I know Mack, she’s such a fighter and her brother is such a fighter. We’re here for her.”
Echoed teammate Abby Armbrecht: “We know what she’s going through and we’ve got her back.”
The support is endless and much needed.
To overcome HSTCL, Debi said her son will need an allogeneic stem cell transplant. That will require getting him into remission after chemotherapy, asking the insurance company to approve everything and finding a matching donor. The transplant process would then keep him in the hospital for about a month, and the hope is in that time he’ll start to make his own new stem cells and be cancer free come April.
It’s going to be a lot, but Brian knows he will never be alone. He has an army of supporters. All fighting like hell.
“When I hear Brian say, ‘I can really feel it. I know I’m loved,’ ” Debi said, “what more could you ask for in these circumstances?”
There is one more thing.
“I’m asking for a miracle,” Debi said.